As we saw in the previous posting on this subject — not that we’re particularly pushing Catholicism — but the Catholic Church has from the beginning been the only consistent opponent of socialism and moral relativism in the modern world. As G.K. Chesterton noted in the introduction he wrote to the published version of Fulton Sheen’s doctoral thesis, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy (1925), the Catholic Church is pretty much the “last man standing” when it comes to defending common sense in the world today.
Whether you agree with that is another issue, and even if you do, there is still a problem. From the first social encyclical, Gregory XVI’s Mirari Vos, in 1832, pretty much all the Church had done was condemn socialism and moral relativism, explain what it considered the correct position, and leave it at that. This continued through the pontificate of Pius IX.
Following his election in 1878, Leo XIII continued Pius IX’s efforts to contain and counter socialism and moral relativism. The new pope had seen what happened to Pius IX’s efforts at political reform at the hands of radical liberalism, and his own efforts at economic and political reform as Archbishop-Bishop (odd title with a long story) of Perugia completely overturned by Sardinia’s conquest of the Papal States. He was therefore fully aware of the risks of attempting to implement political reforms, much less counter the new things of socialism and modernism without first instructing people in authentic political principles and sound philosophy.
|Leo XIII: "Socialism is bad."|
This Leo XIII proceeded to do. While uniquely his own, however, it cannot be said that Leo XIII’s teachings really differed materially from those of Pius IX in substance, form or content, prior to 1891. There were the more or less standard condemnations of the evils of modern society, especially socialism and moral relativism. Matters seemed to have reached a stalemate.
Then, beginning in 1886, what comes across to modern readers as an improbable, even surreal series of events took place that took the conflict between the new things and Catholicism to an entirely new level. In that year the agrarian socialist Henry George decided to run for mayor of New York. What he hoped to accomplish remains a mystery to this day, but the campaign and its aftermath were a game changer, e.g., “[M]ost of Mr. George’s speeches seemed to lay the principal stress upon the abolition of private property in land, a measure upon the execution of which the mayor of New York could, of course, not exercise the slightest influence.” (Henry W. Farnam, “Progress and Poverty in Politics,” The New Englander and Yale Review, Vol. 46, No. 205, April 1887, 340.)
|George: "Cardinal Manning endorsed me!"|
George had made a name for himself as the author of Progress and Poverty (1879), one of the two most influential nineteenth century socialist books coming out of the United States. (The other was Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887, 1888.) Although he insisted he was not a socialist on the rather specious grounds that in his opinion socialism can only exist in barbarian or degenerate cultures (Henry George, Progress and Poverty. New York: The Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1935, 319-321.), his basic theory was essentially the same as all other forms of socialism, although he limited it to land: only an abstraction — humanity as a whole — has the right to own. (Ibid., 336-340.)
Shortly before running for mayor, and although he was not Catholic, George had joined forces with Father Edward McGlynn of the New York Archdiocese. As a perennial thorn in the side of the Church even before his ordination, Fr. McGlynn was an avowed socialist with flexible views regarding doctrine and obedience. Even his best friend among his brother clergy, Father Richard Lalor Burtsell, who advocated women’s ordination, thought that some of McGlynn’s views were too radical.
|Fr. Hecker: "Socialism is not the answer."|
Father Isaac Hecker, colleague of Orestes Brownson and founder of the Paulists, sympathized with McGlynn’s concern for the poor. As a former socialist himself, however, he knew that was not the answer. (Walter Elliott, The Life of Father Hecker. New York: The Columbus Press, 1891, 47-48, 53.) Hecker also looked askance at McGlynn’s attitude toward authority and his obsession with gossipy Church politics. (David J. O’Brien, Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic. New York: Paulist Press, 1992, 332-334.)
During the campaign, George claimed the endorsement of Bishop Thomas Nulty of Meath, Ireland, and Edward Cardinal Manning of England. Nulty, however, had completely repudiated George and his theories years before, and had issued a public statement to that effect. (“The Most Rev. Dr. Nulty,” New Zealand Tablet, March 17, 1882, 13.) Nulty had also personally assured Leo XIII of his complete fidelity to the teachings of the Catholic Church, not those of George. (“Bishop Nulty is Dead, An Irish Catholic Prelate Who Was Prominent in the Fight Against ‘Landlordism’,” The New York Times, December 25, 1898.)
|Manning: "George is a big fibber."|
Manning had met with George during George’s trip to the United Kingdom in 1883-1884, during which George claimed the Cardinal had endorsed his views. Manning issued two open letters to the New York newspapers. The first repudiated George’s claim of an endorsement. (“Cardinal Manning on the Attitude of the Catholic Church,” The Milwaukee Journal, December 14, 1886, 1.) The second, written after George declared that Manning had again endorsed him (Washington, DC Evening Star, December 18, 1886, 4.), called George a liar. (“A Conference of Prelates,” The New York Sun, December 15, 1886, 1; “Henry George’s Theories. Cardinal Manning Tells of His Talk with George About Them.” The New York Times, December 18, 1886.)
Father Thomas Scott Preston, Protonotary Apostolic of the New York Archdiocese, issued an opinion as to the orthodoxy of George’s theories in response to a request from Tammany Hall. As Preston explained, George’s theories are “contrary to the law of God, [and] destructive of the best interests of society.” (Rev. Thomas S. Preston, “Socialism and the Church,” The Forum, Vol. V, No. 2, April 1888.)
|"I'm taking a Big Stick to George."|
Although George blamed his defeat on voter fraud and collusion between corrupt politicians and venal Catholic prelates, the Church’s condemnation had no effect on the election. Horace Greeley, a socialist, praised the election for its fairness. (“How City Votes Were Cast. The Day of Election Fine and Quiet.” The New York Tribune, November 3, 1886, 1.) George would have lost in any event, but Republican leaders told their people to vote for Abram Stevens Hewitt, the Democrat, instead of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who never forgave them for their betrayal. (Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Random House, 2010, 350-351.)
McGlynn hinted that the Catholic Church was responsible for George’s defeat in his commentary on the election. In the December 1886 issue of the North American Review, he reiterated his belief that George was the prophet of the new gospel, destined by Heaven to create a perfect society on Earth. (Edward McGlynn, “Lessons of the New York City Election,” The North American Review, Vol. 143, No. 361, 571-576.) George founded a newspaper in which he relentlessly attacked the Church for opposing socialism.
Summoned to the Vatican by Leo XIII personally to explain his activities, McGlynn at first agreed, but then refused, making a series of increasingly specious excuses. Finally, after repeated warnings (),(“Corrigan Sustained: A Letter from the Pope Regarding the Dr. McGlynn Affair,” The Daily Argus News, May 24, 1887, 1; “The Crisis at Hand: Will Dr. McGlynn Obey the Summons of the Pope?” The Meriden Daily Republican, May 24, 1887, 1.) McGlynn was excommunicated for disobedience on Monday July 4, 1887, effective July 5 due to the holiday as the registered letter could not be delivered until the following day. (“Defiant Dr. McGlynn,” The True Witness and Catholic Chronicle, July 13, 1887, 1.)